Sunday, July 31, 2016

For my birder friends

I know there are some birders who read my blog, so today's entry is especially for them. A group of us took a trip to Engineering Island to check out the abandoned military hospital bunker. I will write more about that later. To get to the island we hiked along the eastern side of the north/south causeway which always has a wide variety of birds on it. Here are a few of the bird photos I took.

red-footed booby
Sula sula
baby red-footed booby
Sula sula
black noddy
Anous minutus
brown booby
Sula leucogaster
female great frigatebird
Fregata minor

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Another visitor to our tiles

Yesterday we put out the GoPro camera on our first dive and retrieved it on our second dive. The battery had not run out when we were ready to pull the pair of tiles, so there was footage of me and Tim removing the tiles from the reef. Ana was floating above us recording tile numbers, making observations on the tiles, and taking all of our "trash" such as the base plate under the tile and the caging.

Tim (on left) and Joe (on right) removing tiles from the FR7 study site

Back in the lab I have been looking at all the video footage speeded up to 10X to see if anything unusual swims by. I was surprised to see a moray eel swim right under the caged settlement tile. It was there when Tim was removing the tile but didn't show itself while we were working.

moray eel moving to crevice directly under one of our caged tiles

Airstrip repairs

Sarah & Tim "2" are patching some rough spots on the Cooper Island airstrip. They are under the gun to complete their work before the next plane arrives in two weeks.

Palmyra airstrip repairs

A divided highway on Palmyra

One would not expect traffic on Palmyra to require a divided highway, but check this out:

median strip on Palmyra's "divided highway"

One of the projects underway is repaving. The road median was short lived as the mixture of coral and cement has already been crushed to make a smooth path.

As mentioned earlier, the staff is doing a lot of maintenance work during our stay since there are only the three of us scientists putting demands on their time. At a max, the station can handle 16 researchers. When the numbers get that high and you add in the staff to support them, you fill all the beds in the cabins and start putting people on cots in the dry lab and the shop (which are air conditioned). I am happy to be here while the numbers are low, and we have the luxury of not having to share a cabin.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Solar power

When one steps off the plane, the wind tunnel used to generate electricity is the most obvious thing one sees (check out earlier blog entry for a photo). A little bit less obvious are all the solar panel scattered across the station's buildings.

solar panels on the shop's roof

Planning ahead when working in remote locations

Earlier I posted a photo of our settlement tiles inside a big (broken) freezer with a space heater placed inside to dry our tiles. It turns out the temperature on Palmyra is hotter than the highest setting on the space heater, so it turns itself off shortly after we turn it on. We went with plan "B" and are using a heat lamp to dry the tiles.

This is just one example where we made contingency plans. One can't just swing by Home Depot to pick up that one critical item that you forgot to pack. Once here, you are on your own. That said, there is a maintenance shop with a wide array of stuff, and Jack is great at making repairs and improvising when needed.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Another visitor to our tiles

Today we started pulling tiles from FR7, the third and final site for this project. Once again we set up the GoPro to document fish interacting with the tiles. In a previous blog entry I showed you the sea turtle swimming by. This time we caught a black tip shark cruising past the camera.

blacktip shark swimming past our tiles
Carcharhinus limbatus

Working in paradise

As I lay in bed at night listening the all the birds, I think about what a privilege it is to be able to do research on this remote atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. With a relatively small staff on site, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) does a great job supporting the needs of my team as we work.

After TNC purchased the property from a private owner, they turned over all but Cooper Island to U.S. Fish & Wildlife to manage. It is a National Wildlife Refuge for both the terrestrial and the marine environments. The coral reefs surrounding Palmyra are one of the few remaining pristine reefs in the world with lots of top predators (ie. sharks). For scientists, it provides a unique opportunity to study a coral reef system that has not been significantly altered by man.

The terrestrial system is not so pristine since it was heavily altered by the U.S. Navy when it took over the atoll during World War II. One can see the remains of old bunkers along with an assortment of non-degradable trash left by the military. Also the military was probably responsible for introducing rats to the islands. The good news is U.S. Fish & Wildlife along with TNC and Island Conservation took on the heroic task of eradicating all rats from the islands. The project was a great success, and it is hoped that some of the ground nesting birds that stopped reproducing on Palmyra because of the rats will eventually return. In the meantime there are currently 11 species of seabirds that nest on the islands primarily in the native Pisonia trees.

There is a Fish & Wildlife Manager on site whenever research is being done either on land or in the ocean. All projects both underwater and on land require approval through a permit process. Special care is taken to keep any impact on the environment to a minimum with special attention given to preventing the accidental introduction of non-native species of plants and animals.

Sand Island is in the top center, Strawn Island is the long island along the bottom
the three small islands in between are Lesley, Dudley, and Ainsley named after the children of the previous owner

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A little bit of exploring after our dives and lab work

After our two morning dives and much of the afternoon taken to process the tiles we collected, there was a little bit of time before our 6:30 pm dinner to explore. Ana, Tim, and I took one of the lagoon boats to check out the route to Eastern Island.

Ana skippering a lagoon boat while Tim checks the map

Getting to Eastern Island is a bit of a challenge since one has to go through a break in the causeway built by the military. The water is very shallow, and there are strong currents as the water moves from one lagoon to the other. You have to raise the engine a couple notches before motoring through the gap.

Eastern Island is on the right

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Making progress

We have completed the FR3 site and are about two thirds done with the FR9 site. If all goes well, we will finish up with FR9 with two dives tomorrow morning. That only leaves FR7 which is the furthest away on the north shore of Palmyra. It is also where we expect to find a high number of tiles missing due to the storms Palmyra experienced in 2015. This is based on my comparing the photomosaics that Scripps made of part of our study site before and after the storm. I can not find a single unique coral head that I can use to sync the two images. I see some of our plates in the post-storm photomosaic, but in almost all cases one of the two paired plates can not be found in the image.

For the most part, there is a lot more filamentous red algae on plates with caging. This is because the larger fish can't get in there and eat it. The uncaged tiles usually have very little algae except crustose coralline algae. That said, we had at least one plate that was in a cage that was more barren than most of the uncaged plates.

caged tile showing lots of filamentous red algae compared to uncaged tile

Monday, July 25, 2016

We added a twist to our dives today

In addition to pulling more settlement tiles today, we starting filming fish interacting with the caged and uncaged tiles. To do this we set up a "GoPro on a stick" to record for about an hour while we went off to collect tiles. You never know what is going to come by while you are filming. Below is a screen capture of a sea turtle that swam by. You can see the caged and uncaged tiles below it.

sea turtle caught on camera while filming our plates for fish interactions

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Busy day

Today we made two dives in the morning to pull 35 settlement tiles. We then processed them in the afternoon and evening. Below is an example of a photograph taken back in the lab of a tile with a small coral growing in what was originally a large pseudo parrotfish divot. The coral is the white blob in the right upper quadrant.

uncaged tile 174 from the middle FR3 transect after being in the water for 3 years

Some of the tiles were so overgrown they were hard to get off the reef.

I omitted one photo to cap off yesterday's perfect day

I meant to include this photo at the end of yesterday's blog entry. It was a great end to a successful day on Palmyra.

sunset on Palmyra Atoll

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The day continued to improve

Breakfast was great (as usual):

breakfast is the most important meal of the day
I returned to my cabin to gather my things:

the porch stairs are on the left as you exit so you don't fall into the ocean leaving your cabin at night

Then we headed out from the lagoon through the channel going past Sand Island:

Sand Island on the left as you exit the lagoon via the channel
The FR3 site was still a bit rough for doing our work, so we headed out to FR9 on the north shore and found good conditions. On our first dive we put flagging on all the settlement tiles. On our second dive we retrieved all but one pair of tiles at the end of the deep transect before running low on air. Then it was back to the lab to photograph, count, measure, and map any coral polyps. Here is an example of a coral polyp fluorescing under blue light as seen through an amber filter.

fluorescing coral polyp found on settlement tile

Then it was time for a delicious dinner:

another delicious meal including purple potatoes

Now that most people have gone to bed, I can finally get enough band width to blog. Once I post this I am closing down and going to take a shower before bed. We already have the boat loaded up with all our gear for an early start to go diving on Sunday morning.

Today starting out better

The good news is I was finally able to get the dead battery out of my camera and replace it with a new one. Whew. I will be even happier if we are able to dive today to retrieve more tiles, but we won't know that until after breakfast.

Here are some quick photos I took before heading off to eat.

freezer with tiles and space heater

scraps from our collecting, acrylic base plates, two with caging

Friday, July 22, 2016

Blown out today

The day did not start well as I am unable to get the dead battery out of my Olympus camera. This is the camera I use most of the time since I don't have to worry about it getting wet. I am going to be bummed if I am not able to include lots of photos with my blog entries. I also use the camera to document things which later become very useful.

Last night it rained pretty hard. The previous group had enjoyed great weather their entire time, but I guess they took the good weather with them. It stopped raining by morning, and it didn't look too bad in the lagoon. Once we got outside the lagoon it was clear that the water was too rough to return to FR3 and collect more settlement tiles. The skipper offered to peek around the point heading toward the north shore to see if things were better on the lee side of the island. No such luck. Our return to dock was rough going as it was like being in a dish washer getting thrown around by waves.

After lunch Tim, Ana, and I did hour long searches for coconut crabs on Sand Island and Kaula Island. No camera, so no photos. The clothes we wore all had to be brand new and frozen for 48 hours before we could set foot on these islands. This is to prevent accidentally bringing seeds, ants, or other invasive species to the islands.

I hate to post without any photos, so here are some of the laundry/shower building. This building is one I forgot to photograph during my first year on Palmyra. My attempt at an exterior shot during my second year did not come out well, so here are some better photos.

laundry & shower building exterior

laundry & shower building interior
note the folded laundry in bottom left - your laundry is done for you daily except on Sundays

one of several several shower stalls

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Our first day of diving

The internet is painfully slow this year. I delete emails and they re-appear since the "delete" doesn’t go through. I was able to blog last night, but only after 11 pm when most of the 13 people on the island have gone to bed. I will keep trying, but this could put a crimp in my goal of posting a daily blog entry.

Ana had a minor ear problem, so she sat out the dive today and worked with Jack to get the freezer set up for drying our settlement tiles that will be going back with us to the mainland for further analysis.

Tim and I dove on FR3 since there wasn’t a strong current, but there was a pretty good swell which makes it challenging to stay at one spot to work. This is how I remember work at FR3 in previous years — big swells and strong currents. We spent our first dive checking out our gear and then flagging almost all of the caged tiles. On our second dive we collected three tiles from the deep FR3 transect. We also grabbed one uncaged tile from the mid FR3 transect since it was loose and on its side.

loose uncaged tile 164 from FR3 middle transect

One tile broke as I was trying to put it on the metal stand for transport. My goal was only to collect 4 to 6 tiles on the first day since processing would be slow until we got our routines down. Tomorrow our plan is to collect the remaining tiles on the deep FR3 transect.

No baby corals were found on any of the tiles we brought back, but one had many large corallimorphs. Corallimorphs are marine cnidarians closely related to stony or reef building corals. The species on Palmyra is Rhodactis howesii, and it is native. The population exploded around some old ship wrecks, so they decided to remove the ship wrecks since they believed iron leaching from the wrecks was contributing to the unnaturally high numbers. Normally this is a rare species on Palmyra.

tile160 from the deep FR3 transect with 8 corallimorphs
Rhodactis howesii 

What happens when you put three scientists in an empty room

As I mentioned earlier, the Stanford team is the only group of scientists working on Palmyra over the next two and a half weeks. The staff is using their free time to take on several maintenance projects that are normally left to do in winter when there is only staff on the island.

In addition to all of us having our own individual cabins, we have the whole dry lab space to ourselves. So guess what? Have an empty space and it gets filled up. We have spread out everywhere.

totally filling up the dry lab with gear

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Very busy first day

Here is the Stanford team about to board our two and a half hour flight from Honolulu to Palmyra Atoll. 

Tim, Ana, Joe ready to board Falcon50 flight to Palmyra Atoll
One of the first things you see when you land is the new wind generator that is right by the air strip.

wind power generator side view
wind power generator head-on view

We are the only science team on Palmyra. However, there are a number of other people out here with us besides the "standard" staff. There is a recent high school graduate, Rex, who will be attending Harvard but is taking a year off before starting college. There is Tim who is working with Sarah on upgrading the marsh area used for sewage treatment. The good news is the number of people is low enough that everyone gets their own cabin and don't have to share. I was really hoping for this as I lucked out and had my own cabin the previous two trips. I am in cabin #3 which is even closer to the water than #4 where I stayed my previous two trips. 

my waterfront cabin, #3

Falcon50 vs. Gulf Stream

I am writing this on board our flight to Palmyra. After not being able to land in 2014 because of rain, I will only be completely relaxed when we have actually landed.

There are three additional passengers on our flight besides the Stanford group.  Sarah is an environmental engineer who is volunteering with TNC and will be looking at the marsh that was established many years ago to handle waste water treatment on Palmyra. She is going to be on the island for 3 months. Jarrett is coming out to train as the diving safety officer and boat captain.  He will be flying back with us in two and a half weeks to return in the fall for a 3 month stint. The third person is Theran who is coming out just for the day. He is flying out to look at the WiFi internet set up. He will return in the fall to upgrade the system to provide an increased bandwidth.

I have to say the Gulf Stream jets I flew the previous trips we more spacious and luxurious than the Falcon50. Of course part of the issue is we are bringing LOTS of cargo and this plane probably has less cargo space. On my past flights all our gear fit in the cargo hold except maybe a few bags that were stored in the very large bathroom area. We only had our personal backpacks with us in the cabin of the Gulf Streams. On this flight we had a lot of gear in the plane's cabin as you can see from the photo below. Compare this to photos on the blog entries for my previous two trips.

Falcon50 with seven passengers + one empty seat and lots of gear

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

On our way

Tim picked me up at 3 am, and we headed to the airport shuttle bus stop driving through the deserted streets of PG and Monterey.

It really is a small world. The driver of the shuttle has a relative that worked for The Nature Conservancy, and one of the passengers said his sister worked on Palmyra. It turns out his sister is Chelsea Wood, a former HMS graduate student who I helped track down historic photos of Palmyra for her research and also helped her obtain lots of books on parasites.

I am composing this on the plane, and realize I forgot to take a photo of the ice chest I used as my checked bag. I wanted a photo just in case it got lost.  I was too wrapped up re-packing it in order to get Tim's checked bag below the 50 lb weight limit.


Tim and I made it to Hawaii with all our gear and met up with Ana who had arrived earlier on a flight from LAX.  After grabbing some lunch, we are in our hotel's business center waiting for our room to be cleaned.

ice chest that went with checked luggage along with my carry-on bag
We get to "sleep-in" tomorrow compared to today. Our shuttle picks us up at 6 am to leave for Signature Air where we will load all our gear and then wait to hear from the station manager on Palmyra for his weather report so we know when to depart. Last time, you may remember, it was raining so hard we couldn't land.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Packing for 3 am departure

I am busy packing for my 3 am pick-up tomorrow morning. Tim and I are taking the 3:30 am airport shuttle from Monterey to SFO for our 7:30 am flight to Honolulu. The good news is we both got TSA Pre-check, so we don't have to undress and un-pack everything to go through security screening.

Packing for Palmyra is always a challenge. First and foremost are the weight restrictions for the flight from Honolulu to Palmyra. In the past we flew on Gulf Stream jets, but the new contract The Nature Conservancy negotiated has us flying on a Falcon50. The Gulf Stream is a two engine private plane while the Falcon50 has a third jet in the tail in addition to the ones on the wings. The other difference is the Falcon50 holds a slightly smaller number of passengers. While the interior is luxurious compared to most first class accommodations on commercial flights, there is no room for large carry-on bags. You are restricted to a small backpack weighing no more than 10 lbs. My backpack will have things like my passport, laptop computer, iPad, underwater & terrestrial camera, critical papers, etc.

items going in my backpack not including my laptop
For my carry-on I am packing a lot of items that would be difficult to replace should my checked bag get lost. It includes cameras for the microscope and photo stand, a GoPro camera for filming fish interacting with the settlement tiles in situ, various cables, batteries, an external hard drive for backup, data sheets, some personal dive gear, and a minimal amount of clothes. You don't need much in the way of clothes since the staff does your laundry for you daily except on Sunday. I live in swim trunks and t-shirts on Palmyra. The weight limit for "personal gear" is 30 lbs.

items going in my carry-on bag
Fish & Wildlife has been beefing up the biohazard protocols to prevent foreign seeds and insects from invading the atoll. Clothes worn on Cooper Island where the marine station is located must be washed in hot water, dried with high heat, packed in zip-lock bags and then frozen for 48 hours. If you want to go on any of the other island, you must have brand new clothes, shoes, backpack, etc. that are placed in zip-lock bags and frozen for 48 hours.

This year I am bringing more gear than I did in 2014, and we will also be bringing back all the settlement tiles with us on our return flights. Therefore, my checked bag this year is a large ice chest. Our original plan was to use the generator room on Palmyra to dry our settlement tiles before placing them in individual zip-lock bags, wrapping them in bubble-wrap, and then stacking them in ice chests. The problem was Palmyra has gone "green" using solar and wind to power the island the majority of the time. The generator serves as backup and is used infrequently. This is a good thing, but it meant we had to come up with an alternate plan to dry the tiles. There is an old, non-functioning freezer that we are planning to use in combination with either heat lamps or a space heater. Those are some of the things that are going in the ice chest. We are allowed 25 lbs of "additional gear".

items going in a large ice chest
I will be re-packing everything once I am in Hawaii as the risks are different for the two flights. The risk on the flight from SFO to HNL is having the bag lost and not found until the next day which is too late since I will already have left for Palmyra. I put things in the ice chest that, should it get lost, could potentially be replaced with a mad shopping spree in the half day we have in Waikiki. However, that carry-on bag with all the fragile gear has to go in the cargo hold on the flight the next morning on the Falcon50 since there is no overhead storage in the plane's cabin. Here there is no risk of the luggage getting lost. Rather the concern is damage to the fragile equipment. So some things will come out of the ice chest and go in my soft-sided carry-on to make room in the ice chest for cameras, etc.